Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 100

A sign that the five defilements flourish,
Is that all of this age, whether of the Way or of the world,
While their outward form accords with Buddhism,
Inwardly revere and practice other teachings.

The Ninety-five Teachings

The 'five defilements' were a recognised feature of the world in which Shakyamuni appeared some two and a half millennia ago, but Shinran Shonin is acutely aware that the defilements (or 'dusts') are now 'flourishing'. Their influence on the mind now predominates, and they cannot be removed by means of the self-power practices that Shakyamuni taught. As we have seen throughout the Koso Wasan (Songs of the Dharma Masters) and the Shozomatsu Wasan (Songs of the Dharma Ages), the distance in time from Shakyamuni has resulted in a dimuntion of the force of his light. Indeed, as we have often seen, most schools of the Buddha Dharma hold to a similar view.

So far, in the Wasan, Shinran has alluded to many factors, which re-inforce his strong awareness that we now live in the Dharma-ending Age, but in this verse, and in those to come, he turns his gaze upon the Sangha itself. He includes his own blindness as further evidence of this decline, so he is not standing apart from the Sangha and posing as an objective observer. He considers his own person to be part of the problem. This (or, so it seems to me, at any rate) is, one of the reasons for the way that Shinran, who continued to wear the robes of a monk, nevertheless described himself as 'neither monk, nor one in worldly life'.

Readers will remember from our review of the Koso Wasan, that, with the passing of his personal teacher, Honen Shonin, into the Pure Land, Shinran felt that all light and all wisdom had finally disappeared from the world, and from the realm of samsara, where its evidence had long been curtailed. This is my reading of much that Shinran wrote, including this verse, and those that follow it. It is not easy to make any other interpretation because it was well known that Honen was exemplary in his role as a mendicant. He had a high reputation as a monk who followed the precepts scrupulously. He was, in fact, a master of the Vinaya - the rules for monks and nuns.

So it seems to be very likely that Shinran's critique of the standards that he found within the Sangha were developed in the face of Honen's exceptional observance of the rules. Honen did not fit the facts that seemed evident to Shinran, when it came to the community of mendicants at large.

It has been suggested that by 'other teachings' (gedo), Shinran may have been referring the 'ninety-five wrong ways', which the Buddha Dharma had always considered to be mistaken views. These include ideas like the belief that there exists a permanent and enduring individual entity, which survives death and lives forever through a series of reincarnations, or, in contrast to this, that death is total annihilation of the personality. Another 'wrong way' is the view that a single creator made - and controls - the universe.

These so-called 'wrong views' are sometimes identified with religions that thrive in our time. For example, it is suggested that 'materialism' or the various forms of Judaism that are in the ascendancy throughout the world are decribed in the typical Buddhist critiques of the ninety-five wrong ways.

It seems to me, however, that this is a somewhat anachronistic interpretation. The identification of the Buddhist critique of philosophical and religious view-points that thrived in Shakyamuni's time with the sophisticated and ethically sound teachings that are followed in our time - for example, utilitarianism, or the Judaic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) - is somewhat misleading. For one thing, neither Shakyamuni nor Shinran had the faintest inkling of the existence of any of the Judaic religions, and certainly not of utilitarianism. Hence, it is doubtful that either Shakyamuni or Shinran would offer a critique of them.

The 'ninety-five wrong ways' are described in many Buddhist sutras, but they amount to an adherence to 'views' (Sk. drshti) of all kinds. For a Jodo Shinshu follower, examples of these views can be found in the third volume of our principal text, Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. They appear in the section of this volume, in which Shinran deals with the problem of those people who are 'difficult' to set free from bondage to samsara. This consists of a very long quotation from the Nirvana Sutra, which we have frequently contemplated in this survey of Shinran's Wasan. In this passage there are six teachers who propound various dogmas Each of these six teachers had fifteen desciples, so the aggregate number of wrong teachings is ninety-five.

When we look closely at the views expressed by these six detractors of the Buddha Dharma, we find that they amount to propositions that we would describe as 'sophistry' or, in their crudest form, as mere 'superstition'. In common parlance these terms cover quite a wide genre of ideas but, in general, they defy that rather elusive thing, which we would call 'common sense'. A whole range of things could be captured in this net, ranging from some rather fanciful modern cosmological theories to those forms of fortune telling, which weigh 'lucky and unlucky days'.

Perhaps the measure of 'wrong teachings' is that, generally speaking, they refer to beliefs that are lacking in any kind underlying systemic order; they are inherently irrational. While there may be some moments along the path of the Dharma, which demand a leap that takes us to a transcendent realisation, there is always an underlying thread of consistency within it. The classic example of this is the Fourfold Noble Truth, which identifies the causes of suffering and offers a solution that is based on dealing with these very same causes.

It is difficult to support this standard of measuring wrong teachings because sometimes they also have a certain logic and inner consistency: they are true sophistry. By the same token, some teachings that are attributed to Shakyamuni defy logic. In fact, the prajnaparamita tradition posits a practice that seeks to transcend such ordered systematic thinking. In any case, Shinran does not here use the term rokushi gedo, which signifies the six wrong teachings that are identified in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

The Mahayana regards the canon of texts, which underpin the Buddha Dharma, as the word of the Buddha. It seems to me to be very likely that what Shinran intends here is to suggest that the 'other teachings', which infect the Sangha, are doctrines that are not consistent with the Sutras. In fact, Shinran often points to the Sutras, and, especially, the Larger Sutra, as the standard of truth and the measure of all that is real. In other words, he means, by the term 'other teachings', anything that was not consistent with the received utterances of the Buddha.

This further suggests that even though a doctrine is not critiqued by the standard of the ninety-five wrong teachings, it is still an 'other teaching' (gedo), and a source of corruption in the Sangha, if it is not consistent with the Buddhist scriptures.

- April 21, 2006.

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